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Captured: A New York Minute, or One in Havana
By KEN JOHNSON
In a photograph by Elliott Erwitt, “New York City, 1949,” we behold, from behind, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s bronze sculpture of a nude Diana. Drawing her bow, she seems to be aiming at the silhouetted figure of a man far away down a long hallway. In this, like so many of Mr. Erwitt’s images, the light humor thinly veils poetic profundity. A modern cipher of a man is about to get his comeuppance from a mythical divinity: Diana, the virginal huntress, the sight of whom makes men fall prey to the hounds of their own lust. As the sex scandals reported almost daily in the news media attest, many powerful men have suffered, metaphorically, the fate of that unlucky voyeur Actaeon.

Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mr. Erwitt has been a seeker of the “decisive moment,” an instant in real time when people, animals or objects appear before the camera in surprising and illuminating ways. What distinguishes Mr. Erwitt’s work has been his keen eye for the comedy in everyday life. He is the Henny Youngman of photographic one-liners. I mean that as high praise. Mr. Erwitt, now 82, delivers his visual gags with such economy and sweet-tempered lack of pretension that it is easy to overlook just how good he is at what he does.

With one qualification, “Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best,” at the International Center of Photography, affords a fine occasion to appreciate his excellence and, not incidentally, have a laugh-out-loud time doing so. The problem is that most of the more than 100 images are in the form of recently produced, poster-size prints. Many are almost four feet wide or tall. The large format enhances graininess and sacrifices the pellucid intimacy of the formerly standard 8-by-10-inch print. (Brian Wallis, the center’s chief curator, organized the exhibition, which celebrates the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement prize to Mr. Erwitt at the center’s 2011 Infinity Awards on May 10.)

Format aside, the images still speak for themselves with wry, understated eloquence, and they do so almost always by juxtaposing oddly disparate yet similar objects. In “Florida Keys, 1968,” a long-necked, large-beaked white bird stands near a vertical pipe capped by a horizontal faucet and spout. The one thing is inanimate, the other animate, and yet they seem somehow, surrealistically, kindred.

In many of the most compelling images, second and third takes are needed to get the whole picture. In “New York City, 1974,” the first element you notice is the Chihuahua to the right, sporting a ridiculous little knit beret and gazing back at the camera with a look of goggle-eyed bewilderment. The dog is so little that the black boots of its owner, to the dog’s right, seem like those of a giantess. And then, finally, you notice, to the left, the big punch line: the enormous paws and legs like tree trunks of a Great Dane or a dog of a related breed.

Born in Paris in 1928, Mr. Erwitt moved with his family to the United States in 1939. He went to Hollywood High School in Los Angeles, worked in a commercial darkroom and studied filmmaking at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1949 and 1950. After military service, he returned to New York, where, mentored by Edward Steichen and Robert Capa, he embarked on a long and distinguished career as a commercial photographer and photojournalist.

He made documentary films too. Three eminently watchable examples are running as part of this show. One from 1968 called “Little Big Man” profiles Dustin Hoffman during the time he worked on the film of that title; “Beauty Knows No Pain,” from 1971, examines the Kilgore College Rangerettes, an all-female dancing and marching team; and, best of all, “Red, White and Bluegrass,” from 1973, is a captivating study of musicians performing in rural North Carolina settings.

Mr. Erwitt’s news photography is, naturally, more conventional than his personal work, but his pictures of the famous 1959 Kitchen Debate between the Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev and Vice President Richard M. Nixon straddle the categories. With Nixon vigorously expostulating and pointing his finger into the chest of the impassive Khrushchev, the contestants look like bickering clowns.

In images of other famous people Mr. Erwitt got past the veils of myth and celebrity. Figures as different as Marilyn Monroe and Fidel Castro become real, sympathetic human beings. The image of Jacqueline Kennedy, caught momentarily alone in the crowd at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, her face transformed by grief and worry, is heartbreaking.

But it is ordinary life to which Mr. Erwitt has been most acutely attuned and where he finds moments of allegorical epiphany. In a picture from 1963, two women stand on either side of a park bench, looking in different directions. A third sits between them with an unusually large baby sprawled on her lap. A sign posted high on the wire fence behind them announces “Lost Persons Area.” Obviously, it is a place at a fair or concert where people can go to find friends or family members from whom they’ve been temporarily separated.

But there is a funny, paradoxical multiplication of meaning. Do these ladies not know where they are? Are they suffering from a purgatorial spiritual condition? Are they hoping to be found, as in the song “Amazing Grace?” Well, Mr. Erwitt found them, and that is what counts.

“Elliott Erwitt: Personal Best” continues through Aug. 28 at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street; (212) 857-0000, icp.org.